Leadership Lesson: How to Avoid the Perils of Commiserating

by Alli Polin on May 9, 2017

Things at work were stressful, to put it mildly. Stupid policy changes were getting in the way of doing great work. No matter where you turned, people were talking about the new policy and not saying nice things. The CEO put out clever messaging via the standard channels, but people weren’t buying what he was selling. It was ugly. 

One leader from the middle decided she was willing to step forward and speak out to spark change. 

She gathered with her peers over lunch. They all agreed the new policy was detrimental to the work. They all wished that the policy would change or disappear. 

She met with her team members. They vented, she let them know they were heard. She understood. 

She talked to mentors, old colleagues, anyone who would listen and shared their plight. Everyone was in agreement – the policy was going to have far more cost than benefit. 

Finally, there was a meeting with the CEO and the leaders who were responsible for implementing the changes. She looked around at her peers in the meeting, and they all made knowing eye contact. When a pause came, and there was a short opening for discussion, she was the only one who spoke up. Her peers were no longer making eye contact and would not risk rocking the boat

What happened?

In every meeting, she was sure she was doing more than complaining when she raised the need for change. Everyone agreed. People threw out more and more reasons why it was the worst policy they’d seen implemented in a long time. They were on the same page… weren’t they?

Clearly not. 

3 Big Perils of Commiserating – How to Avoid Them (+ Transform Them)

Commiserating leads to justification, not resolution

It feels great to have others cheer you on even when it’s encouraging you to further embrace the negativity of your circumstances. “Yeah! We were wronged!” Suddenly, everything you think about your circumstances is validated. Your negative thoughts are justified. However, you’re bonding over the problem, not the solution. 

How to Create Change:

The key to overcoming this pitfall of commiseration is to transform it into collaboration. A cornerstone of collaboration is working together on a solution. Step up and into your leadership. Try:  “What do we need to do now? Let’s make it happen.”

 

Commiserating reinforces your powerlessness

It’s important to know that you’re not alone, but don’t let a whine-fest reinforce your powerlessness. “Why did they do this to us?” “How could they?” 

How to Create Change:

Instead of wallowing in the crappiness of your situation with others who have been through the same, shift your perspective and close the window to the complaint department. Yes, things happen to us, but it’s also up to us to lead through it. Life moves forward and complaining about what others did to you only reinforces the idea that you have absolutely no power. The way you handle adversity? That’s your power. Don’t toss it out with the bathwater. 

Commiserating fools you into thinking everyone’s on the same page

When everyone’s on the same page about the issue, it doesn’t mean their playbook looks the same as yours for next steps. In fact, some people don’t see any next steps. Often, the people who complain the loudest are the ones who find camaraderie in the pain – it’s serving them. 

How to Create Change: 

Be explicit. Don’t assume you know how far anyone else is willing to take it. The best way to find out what someone is willing to do is to ask. Let them know that you’re not going to roll over. You all agree there are challenges and you’re willing to raise them – with potential solutions. Ask others to join you. 

Remember: 

Commiserating makes you feel stuck.

Commiserating listens for the negative.

Commiserating shuts down possibilities.

Commiserating doesn’t create change.

Commiserating isn’t action focused.

You can CHOOSE to take action even in the worst circumstances. You can CHOOSE to speak up. CHOOSE to educate others, propose solutions, and continue the conversation. 

Even if you discover that others are too afraid to speak up for change or openly question policies from the senior team, it doesn’t mean you have to give up too. Silly policies and decisions may not get reversed, and life not be perfect again, but you know that you tried and that matters – that’s leadership.  

 

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

John Thurlbeck May 9, 2017 at 6:17 am

Hi, Alli

Just a short note to say I loved the post, and that I am unsubscribing from your list with my current email and re-subscribing with my new business email!

So, not to worry! I am not deserting you!

Kind regards

John

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Alli Polin May 9, 2017 at 8:01 am

Many thanks, John! Always appreciate your support!

Best,

Alli

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Terri Klass May 9, 2017 at 8:38 am

Wonderful post Alli! Never thought about commiserating vs collaborating but it makes perfect sense.

Recently I contacted an organization that I partner with who felt disconnected from many of its subcontractors. Instead of commiserating with the angry subcontractors I put together a collaborative meeting with the subcontractors who seemed willing to talk and brainstorm. It was wonderful.

Thanks for this great post and will share!

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Alli Polin May 9, 2017 at 9:23 am

Thanks, Terri. I appreciate your story. Perfect example. Would have been easy to align yourself with contractor headaches and instead you’ve chosen to facilitate a better outcome for all. Says a lot about you and your leadership.

Alli

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Blair Glaser May 9, 2017 at 11:57 am

This post is so important. If teams could really understand how their complaining leaks into productivity and erodes morale, if they could see how much more accomplished and connected they would feel if they collaborated instead, I think the world of work would be a much more nurturing, vital and stimulating place to be.
Thanks for opening my mind, Alli!

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Alli Polin May 10, 2017 at 7:14 am

Well said, Blair! I like the world of work that you describe!

Collaboration takes intention. It doesn’t happen because people decide to just do it. All it takes is one brave leader needs to light the way forward…

Alli

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Jon Mertz May 9, 2017 at 6:30 pm

Agree, Alli! Instead of commiserating, we need to collaborate. Instead of complaining, we need to solve. To get change, we need a stick backbone and open ears to learn, exchange, and move forward. Jon

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Alli Polin May 10, 2017 at 7:15 am

It does take backbone, Jon. Complaining is the easy part. Sticking with the problem instead of ignoring it is what helps people and organizations transform.

Appreciate your insight!

Alli

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LaRae Quy May 9, 2017 at 10:25 pm

I love how you gently steer the reader into a change in mindset…from commiseration and bitching about our circumstances to collaboration where people actively seek ways to work together and move forward. A great post on the true meaning of leadership!

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Alli Polin May 10, 2017 at 7:16 am

Thanks, LaRae! We feel validated when our complaints are echoed but inspiration comes in the process of collaboration… endless bitching only drags us down and makes change an impossibility.

Alli

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LaRae Quy May 11, 2017 at 6:39 pm

Great post Alli! Commiserating is one of the fastest ways to bond with folks but it is also one of the least productive ways to spend time with those same people…as you point out, it is really just about choosing to whine about stuff rather than using that same energy to find solutions—together!

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Chery Gegelman May 16, 2017 at 4:43 pm

Very powerful post Alli!

Commiserating is easy and becoming more normal all over the world. In Saudi it was amped up to even higher levels because people had more reasons to feel helpless to change the systems that were causing frustration and division.

One of my favorite quotes from Covey is, “Be a light, not a judge; a model not a critic; a part of the solution instead of a part of the problem.”

It is interesting to see how people respond when you ask them to be a part of the solution… (Even in Saudi!)

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